Daily Archives: May 3, 2006

Looking away from the keyboard: Debunking the debunkers


Over and over, I’ve seen people say that you can tell facilitated communication is not real, very easily, if the typist is not looking at the keyboard. The following quote from the Religious Tolerance website illustrates typical attitudes towards this:

There is one condition in which it is obvious to even an untrained observer that the person with autism is not doing the communicating during a FC session. This is when they are staring at the ceiling or directly away from the keyboard.

If you attempt to type with a single finger, you will only find the correct key reliably if you can actually see the key that you are aiming at. It is common knowledge that if you stare at the ceiling when typing with one finger, you will normally miss most of the characters. On a typical PC keyboard; you will typically be offset by one or two keys on the keyboard. This is true even for people who are skilled typers.

Most “skilled typers” are touch-typists. Most touch-typists do not gain their ability to touch-type overnight. I know this because I am an extremely skilled touch-typist. When you see beginning touch-typists, they will be staring at their hands unless prevented from doing so. It took me years of dedicated practice to become as proficient as I am at touch-typing (by which I mean as fast as I am).

Touch-typists are trained in a very specific method of finding keys. We are trained to use a specific set of key positions, called the “home row,” and use that as a reference point. Many touch-typists don’t even know the layout of the keyboard in their heads, they just know it in their fingers in reference to the “home row”, and do not even know the distances between the keys if using just one finger. To expect a ten-finger touch-typist to convert to one-finger typing without looking at the keyboard is usually expecting too much. A few people, including me, can do it on their first try, but not a lot. Like ten-finger touch-typing, one-fingered typing is a skill that has to be learned, it isn’t just there from the beginning, either one cannot be converted into the other.

I have spoken with many autistic people who, like me, can type one-fingered without looking. One of them recently even expressed surprise that people find this a difficult skill, or that people would believe it impossible. Morton Gernsbacher states in one of her training videos that her son, who types independently, glances at the letterboard a few times to get a feel for the size of it, and then looks away while pointing one-fingered at it with great proficiency.

Then take a look at the Religious Tolerance folks. They had someone try to type the words “facilitated communication” without looking, with one finger, and they could not do it. This was proof to them that it was impossible, and that therefore, if a facilitator was looking at the keyboard, and a typer was looking away, it was the facilitator who was really typing the words.

Picture of an autistic person typing one-fingered while looking at the ceiling.The latest addition to the Getting the Truth Out website covers this topic, including a video of the author of the website staring at the ceiling while typing a sentence with only one error.

As is pointed out there, it’s very interesting that part of the reasoning behind this seems to be “If normal people couldn’t do this, you people couldn’t possibly.”

That is the same reasoning that prevented researchers from finding the stuff that Michelle Dawson, Laurent Mottron, and others at their laboratory found, about perceptual strengths in autistic people. People had been too busy looking for ways to explain autistic people’s strengths in terms of what we are not (according to them) good at, to look at the opposite possibility. The notion that there could be anything about autistic people that involved being better at something than typical people tend to be, without being the result of a “deficit” in comparison to non-autistic people, just seems too confusing for a lot of the so-called experts in the field.

This is not to say, that if we really were just plain lacking some particular capacity, that we would be of any less value. I do not believe that. But I find it very interesting that many of the ways disabled people are judged in general, seem to contain the assumption that our only difference from non-disabled people is that we can do less than they can do, that if they do something badly then we could never even dream of doing it, and that anything we do happen to be good at is merely a “compensation” for lacking something else.

When I was first diagnosed, I was described as having “idiot-savant tendencies” because I had abilities that in any non-autistic person would just be considered skills or intelligence. This is, to me, another manifestation of the same problem. We are “idiots”, therefore anything we’re even standard-level good at is “idiot-savant” or “splinter skills”, supposedly out of the ordinary for people like us. I have seen similar things happen to people labeled with mental retardation, whose intelligence or other abilities are usually written off as meaningless or non-existent because they’re non-standard or displayed in non-standard ways.

So, yes, people insisting that their inability to do something proves our inability to do the same thing, might want to take note: Just because most non-autistic people can’t do something, doesn’t mean autistic people can’t do it. You might type something like “Edkd yd rsdu,” but we might type “This is easy.”